The ancient tradition of giving eggs at Easter

J. S. Fry & Sons was the first to produce the hollow Easter egg.
J. S. Fry & Sons was the first to produce the hollow Easter egg. / SUR
  • The first chocolate eggs were made in Europe in the mid-19th century

Most of us take for granted the association of eggs with Easter, particularly when that association involves elegantly wrapped chocolate eggs filled with Smarties or sugared almonds.

The tradition of painting hard-boiled eggs inspring pre-dates Christianity and in many cultures around the world, the egg is a symbol of new life, fertility and rebirth.

Along with the egg, came the Easter bunny, a folkloric figure and symbol of Easter that originated among German Lutherans. The Easter bunny was depicted as the judge that evaluated whether children were good or disobedient at the start of the season of Eastertide. The custom was first mentioned in 1682, referring to a German tradition of an Easter hare bringing Easter eggs for the children.

The Christian custom of Easter eggs started among the early Christians of Mesopotamia. The Christian church officially adopted the custom as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ in 1610. The Easter egg symbolises the empty tomb of Christ and one ancient tradition was to stain the Easter eggs red, supposedly in memory of the blood Jesus shed during the crucifixion.

Blood red

While the origin of Easter eggs can be explained in symbolic terms, several legends exist concerning the colouring of eggs. Followers of Eastern Christianity claim that the eggs Mary Magdalene had taken to share with the women who had gathered at the tomb of Jesus miraculously turned bright red when she realised that Christ had risen.

A different legend concerns Mary Magdalene’s efforts to spread the Gospel. According to this tradition, after the Ascension of Jesus, Mary went to the Emperor of Rome to tell him that Christ has risen, whereupon he pointed to an egg on his table and stated, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” It is said the egg immediately turned blood red.

Whatever we believe, the time-honoured Easter egg has become the symbol of the season. The modern chocolate egg owes its progression to the two greatest developments in the history of chocolate - the Dutch invention of a press for separating cocoa butter from the cocoa bean in 1828, and the introduction of a pure cocoa in 1866.

The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in Europe in the mid-19th century. France and Germany were pioneers in this new artistic confectionery. Originally the eggs were solid, as the technique for mass-producing moulded chocolate had not been devised. Progress in the chocolate Easter egg market was slow until the method was found for making the chocolate flow into the moulds.

Hollow eggs

The British company, J. S. Fry & Sons was the first manufacturer to produce the solid chocolate bar and they introduced the first hollow chocolate Easter egg in Britain in 1873. They were soon followed by Cadbury in 1875 - the biggest producers of Easter eggs throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The earliest chocolate eggs were made of dark chocolate with a plain smooth surface. Their designs were based on French and German eggs adapted to suit Victorian tastes. Germany came up with what became known as the crocodile finish; the forerunner to the many distinctive finishes available today.